Snowden’s… Defection?

Today Edward Snowden announced his intention to accept Russia’s offer of asylum at a meeting of human rights groups allowed into the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport.

The meeting was attended (I’m sure by coincidence) by Olga Kostina, who sits on the board of state-owned oil company Transneft who also runs PR for the FSB (Russia’s successor to the KGB) when she’s not running her state-supported human rights group Soprotivlenie (“Resistance”).

In 2000, the authors of this book worked at Izvestia. That summer,  Soldatov was called by Olga Kostina, a public relations officer [at the Ministry of Interior, which runs the FSB] who had once worked for MENATAP, a bank owned by oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. She explained that the FSB had created an “unofficial” press service to which journalists could turn more freely than to the agency’s official public communications center, and she was hired to organize this work…

The following week Kostina invited Soldatov to join the “pool” of journalists briefed by the FSB. Soldatov was told that there were five journalists from different newspapers in the pool, who were briefed regularly at the Lubyanka headquarters.

Olga’s husband, Konstantin, is also a renowned political operative who until 2012 was neck-deep in United Russia, the party that ushered Vladimir Putin back into office last year. Officials at Sheremetyevo Airport organized the event and provided passage to the activists and journalists attending the meeting with Snowden.

Despite this, a whole lot of otherwise smart people, ranging from human rights activists to journalists to academics, still think this is just a whistleblower seeking protection from political persecution rather than a sophisticated intelligence operation against the United States.

As a rule, when a cleared intelligence employee seeks refuge in another country running a hostile intelligence service while carrying gigabytes of top secret documents, that isn’t the behavior of a whistleblower. That is the behavior of a defector. The involvement of known FSB operatives at his asylum acceptance – and the suddenly warm treatment of HRW and Transparency International after months of government harassment – suggests this was a textbook intelligence operation, and not a brave plea for asylum from political persecution.

The Russians are very good at what they do. And so, to be fair, is Wikileaks. The anti-secrecy organization (well, anti-other-people’s-secrecy considering the draconian NDAs they make employees sign) has a close relationship to a renown holocaust denier named Israel Shamir who brags that he is Wikileaks’ representative to the Russian and Belarussian governments. John Schindler describes the connection:

Not surprisingly, awkward questions followed including in The Guardian, not exactly a right-wing rag. Reports followed – all links here are to The Guardian, which given that newspaper’s current involvement with the Snowden case should indicate something – that Shamir, is indeed deeply involved in the Wikileaks operation: As “Adam,” Shamir (along with his Swedish son, a well-known anti-Semitic activist), has a key role in Wikileaks decisions, he was the editor of the group’s Russian-related US diplomatic cables that were leaked by PFC Bradley Manning, and perhaps most distastefully, he was involved in a smear campaign against the Swedish women who accused Julian Assange of rape(the reason he remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London).

Wikileaks once, in 2010, set their sights on attacking Russia just as strongly as they’d attacked the U.S.

“We have [compromising materials] about Russia, about your government and businessmen,” Mr. Assange told the pro-government daily Izvestia. “But not as much as we’d like… We will publish these materials soon.”

He then dropped a hint that’s likely to be nervously parsed in Russia’s corridors of power: “We are helped by the Americans, who pass on a lot of material about Russia,” to WikiLeaks, he said.

That seems to have gone out the window, if only because of their own associates’ close relationship to repressive governments. In fact, any animosity toward Moscow seems to have vanished, considering the statement Snowden wrote under the advisement of Wikileaks (who published it on their site today).

Yet even in the face of this historically disproportionate aggression, countries around the world have offered support and asylum. These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world. It is my intention to travel to each of these countries to extend my personal thanks to their people and leaders.

The praise for Russia “being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless” would certainly come as a surprise to Russian citizens, most of whom do not share that opinion of their own government. Chechens, democrats, human rights workers, aid workers, gays and lesbians, minorities, and political dissidents all have suffered horrendous abuse in just the last two years.

Then again, naïveté seems to drive Snowden as much as any principles do. Last month he said his conscience would not permit him to live in a surveillance state anymore… from his hotel room in Hong Kong, China, one of the most heavily state-surveilled countries on the planet. Now he brags, from Russia, of Russia’s commitment to human rights and sticking up for the little guy.

Snowden told reporters today that he has no desire to harm the U.S., and wants the country to “succeed,” whatever that means. I’m sure the White House is relieved to know a 30-year old IT worker has its best interests in mind as he preaches about human rights from one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

Most of Snowden’s most prominent defenders were in touch with him long before he chose to leak; Wikileaks, which has developed deeper ties to the Russian and Belorussian governments, apparently helped Snowden travel to Moscow. This looks like the first trickle of information before a bizarre — and complex — intelligence operation gets blown open in the public. That doesn’t mean Wikileaks wittingly participated (useful idiots abound) but I bet money U.S. counterintelligence officials are now wondering just how deep the Russia connection to Snowden — and, to Wikileaks — really goes.

comments powered by Disqus